Riding Together Through the Night

A horse is only a horse, of course, but when you’ve grown up with one year after year and watch how visitors light up in its presence, you feel that much more diminished when suddenly your horse is gone.

White Socks, a 13-year-old American Paint, was Green Gate Farms’ first and only horse. That fact alone made her special. Pigs, sheep, goats and other barnyard livestock come and go without much fanfare or remorse, if only because they are legion and get lost in the maw of farming: you raise them, sell or eat them, and try not to get too attached.

Horses have a higher purpose, a more celebrated history; from battlefield to hayfield, from cattle drives to carriage rides, they give all they’ve got without demanding much in return beyond a caring master and a good field of grass.

I grew up with horses. My father started a fox hunting club. My mother taught dressage to beginning riders, her most remarkable student being Mike Matz, a fellow Pony Clubber who went on to become an olympic equestrian. My first — and only horse — was Popcorn, a fast and slightly crazed Appaloosa whose marbled eyes kept searching for low-hanging branches to knock me off.  I still remember the day my mother opened the gate and let me ride cross country on my own. Just me and my horse and the wide open fields. We flew over freshly cut alfalfa, sailed over jumps in the pine woods, galloped through a walnut orchard that today is a subdivision. I stayed on and came home a few inches taller.

My horse days ended abruptly at age 13 after my parents split up and sold our farm. My father had moved to another state so it was left to mom to decide who was sold and who we boarded at a rundown stable near the ranch house we had moved to. Our backyard had diminished from a hundred acres to a hundred feet, from hayfields and barbed wire to turf and chainlink fence. I didn’t feel much like riding in a tight crowded ring with strangers.

One by one our horses were sold, including Popcorn. Our well-worn riding tack — saddles, bridles, boots and caps — collected mildew in the basement. I never touched them again until we sold the house after my mother died at age 65.

Buying White Sox for my daughter Avery was a second chance, a long-awaited opportunity to rewrite the script. She would learn to ride and I would be her teacher. Heck, I might even get back on a horse myself. The big difference this time was I didn’t have my mother’s knowledge and patience. And White Socks was not the calm, older gelding she had relied on to teach young children. White Socks had been trained as a draft horse, pulling carts and wagons for special events. She loved to trot down an asphalt road but put a saddle on her and she became a trickster with a twitching tail and pinned back ears. I lost count of the ambitious, confident riders who took up our offer to exercise her for free, only to quit after too many times biting the Texas dust.

Avery and White Socks

In recent years, our sassy mare became more of a barnyard attraction, the centerpiece of city folk’s fantasies about farm life. And that, in and of itself, was enough to earn her keep. She nipped if you weren’t careful but she never kicked. She was coy and sneaky but never mean. Her most alarming stunt was leaning over the paddock fence, clamping down on a carseat handle and lifting a sleeping infant two feet off the ground before his distracted mother turned around and reclaimed her child. The mother was horrified; the child never woke up.

With no other horses to bond with, White Socks eventually convinced herself she was a goat and mother to the various kids who shared the barn. Let them out of her sight and she would prance and whinny as if her brood had been kidnapped.

That whinny is what I miss most. Each morning I opened the farmhouse door I was greeted with that persistent yet gentle call for food and attention. Annoyed as I often was to be reminded of my farmer duties so early in the morning, I was welcomed in the the evening with her soft pleading, that one constant recognition for the care-taking that is a farmer’s burden and blessing. 

That care-taking slipped several notches when we shut down our city farm this month and moved to the country. Amid the shuffle of pigs, goats, ducks, rabbits and cats, she must have felt as disoriented as the rest of us as we adjusted to our new home. Weeks of rain and cold didn’t help. On Sunday, as night was falling, Erin noticed that White Socks was lying down. Nothing fills a horse owner with more dread than a prostrate horse; or worse, a horse that wont stop rolling. Dehydration, a diet  change, eating sand — a combination of things had led to the dreaded colic that was blocking her intestine.

“No, not this. Not now,” I said to myself.

David Hebel is a cowboy’s vet and a cowboy, too. He knows horses inside and out, from the ER suite to the the high-stakes rodeo arenas of Las Vegas. We leaned on every word as he turned on his flashlight and examined our fallen horse. After checking her gums and heartbeat, Hebel recommended we load her up and drive her to the Elgin animal hospital. That was easier said than done. Two hogs had been loaded in the trailer earlier that day for a trip to the butcher the next morning. Standing in that dark muddy pasture after a long day of moving animals and equipment, I didn’t have it in me to attempt such a difficult swap. 

Option B began with pumping mineral oil down her esophagus, injecting her with pain medication, and forcing her to walk. That last task fell to Avery. She walked her horse alone, in the dark, late into the early morning hour. Reluctantly, she went to bed, knowing we had done our best and could only wait and pray that the blockage would pass and White Socks would be up and eating with the morning sun.

Hebel returned to the farm at 9:25 to a field still shrouded in fog and a horse that was not better but worse. I’ve made many decisions in my farming life over the fate of sick or injured animals. None prepared me for the difficulty of this one. It was still possible we could load White Socks and take her to the hospital, but the odds of a recovery were not in our favor. And there was the matter of money. Sensing we were never going to get off the fence, Hebel reluctantly shared what he would do if this were his horse.

This was not his horse, of course. This was White Socks — Avery’s horse, the lifeblood of our farm for the past decade. I looked at my heartbroken daughter, my tired wife, our patient vet. I looked over at White Socks who was trying to stand but couldn’t. Expecting the worst, Hebel had brought what he needed to make this ending as painless as possible. 

We gave him that terrible nod, finally, unable to look at each other, numb and dumb, staring at our feet. And wouldn’t you know, just then, White Socks got back on hers.

“Oh, Gal, you would have to do that,” Hebel whispered, hoping Avery wouldn’t hear. Opening his medicine chest, our overworked vet glanced at White Socks once more, unbelieving, and added something else:

“Days like this I’m glad I don’t have children.”

I may never have the heart to ask Avery what she was thinking or saying to White Socks as she hugged her there in the mud, the fog suddenly giving way to the sun as if it, too, wanted to offer one last moment of comfort. I stood beside Hebel as he drew the deadly potion into two god-awful syringes — so big they stuck out of his jacket pocket as he approached my daughter and her horse. Like a handgun, I thought, only silent and more deadly.

Hebel knew, as I did not, that euthanizing a standing horse is something you won’t get out of your head for a long time.  So unnatural,  so unhorse like, all four legs instantly cut out from under, all 800 pounds of muscle and bone and beauty toppling down like a tower of blocks. 

“She’s not suffering anymore,” he assured us. “Her heart has stopped.”

The fog had lifted as Dr. Hebel gathered up his things and drove away. Avery leaned on White Sock’s warm body, silently texting her boyfriend in Austin. Now we were left on our own with one last yet immense task. What most owners do with a deceased horse is call someone else to remove it. 

“Where?”Avery asked.

“Where what?”

“Where will they take her?”

Truth was, I wasn’t sure any more. The Alpo factory? The landfill?

“No!” Avery said firmly. “No!”

Her plea pulled me out of my stupor, reminded me of who we were. We were farmers. We bury our own. And so we did.

White Socks was our farm’s first horse. She may be our last. Yet surely she will be remembered by the countless visitors who stroked her mane, by the busloads of thrilled students who stretched their heads out and waved goodbye to a living breathing horse, to this emblem of the freedom and spirit and the making of the Agrarian Dream. 

And by me, too, she will be remembered. When I step out the farmhouse door, I don’t hear that whinny. I will one day — of that I am sure. When I do, I will smile again and know that this second chance to raise and love and share such a noble, trustworthy creature was worth the risk of an untimely goodbye.

White Socks was more than a horse, of course. Now I appreciate why.